Sunday, February 8, 2009

From Newspapers to News

I get all my news electronically, mostly via my handheld devices. It’s been that way since 1996, when I discontinued my subscription to the physical newspaper. These days, I get more news from more sources than I ever did in the days when The Paper came on paper.

This past holiday season, I was visiting relatives near Chicago, browsing through their (physical) Chicago Tribunes. As with other newspapers, the Tribune’s advertisers and subscribers are increasingly migrating to the Internet, where they are less lucrative to the newspaper. The current economic climate is not helping: In December 2008, The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy (the kind where the company keeps operating while it reorganizes, as opposed to the liquidation kind).

My relatives love their Chicago Tribune, but less so now. It’s thinner, the stories sandwiched among seemingly ever-bigger ads and photos. What surprised me, however, was the amount of content The Tribune still has that is not Chicago-specific.

For example, given The Tribune’s economic woes, how long can it have its own movie critic? If there is nothing Chicago-specific about reviewing movies, and the Internet is awash with professional and amateur reviews of every movie out there, why should The Tribune pay the full freight of its own movie reviewer?

Back when newspapering was good business, there was no need to ask such questions. Papers had movie critics and a wide variety of other writers to provide a unique voice to their readers, who did not necessarily have alternate voices readily available. But in a world of abundant alternatives for a newspaper’s content, where does the traditional newspaper add value? I’d think it would be in local content, where the alternatives are fewer and weaker. This applies not just to news and sports but also to art and entertainment happenings unique to the newspaper’s area. For a major metropolitan area, that’s still a substantial swath to cover.

Maybe The Tribune is paring back in exactly this way, but it was not apparent from a cursory view. Per the movie-critic example, maybe The Tribune’s movie critic is the rare star that can be syndicated to other newspapers. Or maybe there’s an angle to this subject I’m missing. But I can say this: My relatives prefer their newspaper on paper, yet the withering of what they consider to be “their newspaper” is prompting them to ask me how they can get their news—as opposed to “their newspaper”—online.

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